WASHINGTON: The Navy’s top admiral talked up cheap ships and high tech this morning, from laser weapons to a new double-decker version of the Mobile Landing Platform vessel (pictured above). Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said precious little about the rolling budget cuts called sequestration. He clearly preferred to emphasize a bold vision of the future rather than the current budget crisis that has forced the fleet to halve its aircraft carrier presence in the volatile Persian Gulf.
Indeed, speaking at a Newseum conference sponsored by McAleese & Associates and Credit Suisse [click here for full coverage], the CNO struck a remarkably optimistic note about the current fiscal misery: “If we get a bill at the end of this month, all of the carrier woes” — delays not just to deployments but to maintenance overhauls — “all go away,” Adm. Greenert said. “The money’s in place; we [just] need the authority to spend it.”
The Navy’s immediate problem is less the automatic cuts known as sequestration, which began taking effect March 1st, and more the arbitrary spending constraints of the so-called Continuing Resolution, a stopgap which forbids new programs until Congress can pass regular spending bills. Legislation now working its way through Congress, to which Greenert referred, would leave the sequestration cuts in place but give the Defense Department the legal green light to execute its 2013 budget otherwise.
That’s not to say Greenert was sanguine about the long-term impact of the cuts. “I think people are the safest,” he said — indeed, military personnel accounts are exempted from sequestration cuts in the first year. But, he went on, “I worry most about the industrial base, [especially] below the primes.”.
For the nuclear Navy in particular — submarines and aircraft carriers — “90 percent of the industry that builds our nuclear components are single-source,” Greenert said. If some mom-and-pop operation building a specific kind of (for example) reactor valve goes out of business, he suggested, the Navy will be hard pressed to replace them.
The Chief of Naval Operations spent most of his time this morning enthusing over Navy programs and new technology: the Littoral Combat Ship, LCS-1 Freedom, now headed to Singapore; the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP) vessel Montford Point, christened last weekend; lasers, railguns, jammers, and drones, especially the X-47B, an experimental unmanned stealth bomber, and its projected big brother the UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System), for which the Navy will publish a formal Request for Proposals (RFP) in “about a month,” he said.
By contrast, the CNO sounded more resigned than excited about the Navy piece of the $240 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the carrier-launched F-35C. We have to have it, but “the question becomes how do we buy and how does it integrate into the air wing,” Greenert said. “If we bought no Cs, i think that would be very detrimental for the overall program.”
The programs the CNO did enthuse about, instead, emphasized low-cost, even for high-tech. Directed energy weapons such as lasers, for example, are literally about as flashy as a weapon can get, but the feature Greenert chose to emphasize was how “directed energy gives me unlimited bullets.” Currently, the Navy, like the other services, relies on limited supplies of expensive missiles to shoot down incoming aircraft, fast attack boats, and even enemy missiles: A laser can keep firing, rapidly, as long as it has power, so once you’ve built the weapon the marginal cost per shot is next to zero.
The Navy has already “demonstrated” an experimental laser’s ability to engage small craft, Greenert said, and soon it will take a laser to sea on the USS Ponce for ship-based trials. That said, he caveated, “we’re at least three or four years away” from an operational weapon — still pretty soon in Pentagon terms.
Laser beams travel at the speed of light but lack punch, making them ideal for small, fast targets such as missiles but less useful versus enemy ships. For that, the Navy is researching railguns — electromagnetic launch rails that fire solid bullets at supersonic speed — and, said Greenert, “it’s probably feasible to put that thing on a ship by the end of this decade.”
Greenert also hit one of his favorite topics, electronic warfare, saying “we’ve gotten really sloppy” since the Soviet threat went away. By adding new sensors and communcications gear without concern for EMCON, emissions control, he said, “we are out there spewing electromagnetic energy into the air,” which makes Navy ships much easier for enemies to find.
In the near term, Greenert’s favorite programs to talk about are relatively low-cost, open-architecture ships that can accommodate a wide range of different mission equipment, making it easy for them to upgrade to new technology as it becomes available. He gave his first nod to the controversial Littoral Combat Ship, noting its large, reconfigurable bay to accomodate different “mission modules” (none of which is actually fully developed, despite LCS-1’s deployment) for mineclearing, sub-hunting, or fending off small attack boats. Greenert also praised the LCS’s little brother, a catamaran transport called the Joint High-Speed Vessel (JHSV), which while unarmed can serve as well as a much more costly destroyer or amphibious ship in humanitarian relief, counter-piracy, and other missions below the threshold of major war. “Instead of a $2.2 billion Aegis ship chasing pirates,” he said, “I can send one of these.”
But Greenert’s most striking slide was a new image of the so-called MLP-AFSB, the “Mobile Landing Platform – Afloating Staging Base” variant. The Navy is building two basic MLP ships, having christened the USNS Montford Point last Saturday. Able to submerge their lower decks so hovercraft and other small craft can float on and off, the MLP vessels will serve as a kind of floating pier to offload heavy weapons and supplies at sea, enabling new kinds of amphibious operations by reducing the need to capture a seaport.
But Greenert also wants to build two MLP-AFSB ships which retain the semi-submersible deck for landing craft while adding a second deck, elevated above the first on piers, to operate aircraft, including helicopters, MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors, and even the jump-jet variant of the F-35, the Marine Corps F-35B. The baseline MLP costs $500 million, and the MLP-ASFB only about $600, Greenert said, but in many operations they can fill the role of a $2.5 billion “big deck” amphibious ship. That’s the kind of affordable fleet the Navy will have to invest in as budgets continue to get tigher.